Judge Says Drunk Teen Is Too Rich to Pay the Price for Killing Four People
The comfort made him do it.
That was the successful defense strategy used by a Texas teenager sentenced Tuesday to 10 years of probation after he killed four people in a June drunk-driving accident.
According to news reports, a psychologist hired by 16-year-old Ethan Couch said the teenager was a victim of “affluenza,” a condition caused by the sort of absurdly permissive home life that comes with being wealthy. The lenient sentence—prosecutors had sought up to 20 years in prison—prompted anger by the victims’ families and others.
These things tend to happen in free-market capitalist societies, said Oliver James, a British psychologist and author of Affluenza: How to Be Successful and Stay Sane. Wealth skews perceptions of right and wrong, he said.
“America teaches people that greed is good,” James said. “There are very few parents who don’t imbue their children with some values, but what those values are is another story. Bernie Madoff’s children were undoubtedly given a model that money is king.”
Though, notably, Madoff’s kids turned him in.
Couch likely will be sent to a California alcohol-treatment center that costs nearly $500,000 per year, news outlets reported. His blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit, and he was driving about 70 mph in a 40 mph zone when he killed four people standing near the side of a road. Nine others were also injured.
The Dallas-area teen was charged with manslaughter. Jan Withers, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he should have faced murder charges and been sent to prison.
“The families were very disappointed, and I personally was very disappointed in the verdict handed down to him,” said Withers, whose 15-year-old daughter was killed by a 17-year-old drunk driver. “We wish he had been held more accountable. He could get the help he needs and still be held accountable.”
Although research has shown the justice system routinely imposes harsher sentences on poor African-American defendants than on wealthier whites, young people of any race or income level should be treated with sensitivity, said Regina Austin, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who has written about the roles of race and class in criminal law.
“There is a concern that overindulgence of children will not produce the kinds of responsible citizens we want,” said Austin.
But it’s worth considering that, whether rich or poor, “young people can be stupid,” she said.
Couch is not the only defendant to blame income levels for criminal actions, she said. But most of the time the defense is used by poor minorities.
“That idea has been used by some minority defendants—‘If I were rich and white, I wouldn’t be prosecuted for this,’ ” Austin said. “You could say a rotten social background defense is comparable to the affluenza defense.”
You could also say they’re exact opposites.